Now that the first cases of locally transmitted Zika virus have hit the continental United States, it is time for employers to become aware of the threat. There is good reason for this concern. While Zika generally exhibits only mild symptoms in healthy adults, it can have devastating consequences if contracted by an employee just before or during pregnancy. While the federal government is frantically working within its funding constraints to develop a vaccine for the virus, none is yet available.
As employers, professional services firms have to provide their employees with appropriate protection while they carry out their duties on behalf of their employers. This duty is especially important when they are on project sites. Whether employees are exploring a prospective site or performing construction evaluation services, it’s the employer’s obligation to make available suitable protective devices. Firms must provide employees with safety equipment like hard hats and safety glasses and provide guidance on apparel and allowed activities in the field.
It’s unclear at this point if potential exposure to mosquitoes carrying Zika will trigger Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations or establish a clear legal duty on behalf of employers. OSHA did release non-binding guidance on the subject in late August. Rather than focus on the legal ramifications that may later develop, keeping employees safe now should be every firm’s goal.
Some ideas for minimizing the probability of mosquito bites when employees are on site include:
Educate your employees: If employees understand the risks associated with Zika they are more likely to comply with safety rules. Rely on the Center for Disease Control’s resources to assist with the education process.
Provide mosquito repellent: Purchase mosquito repellent for employees and ask that they wear it while working on site. Instruct employees on how to spray repellent on their clothing and to use soap and water to remove repellent after work.
Adjust schedules to avoid mosquitoes: Mosquitoes are most active during dawn and dusk hours. Visits to sites mid-day could assist in minimizing the risk of exposure.
Offer special clothing for your employees visiting project sites: This might be the time to require “uniforms” for on-site activities. Public health officials recommend that light-colored, long-sleeve shirts and pants be worn when working in areas where mosquitoes are suspected. OSHA might soon require such clothing under its personal protective equipment (PPE) regulations.
As always, document your actions as you would with any other safety measure. This will assist your firm if you must defend a future claim relating to safety concerns in the workplace.